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Paddy Gower celebrates at the 2023 NZ TV Awards (Photo: Eruera Walker)
Paddy Gower celebrates at the 2023 NZ TV Awards (Photo: Eruera Walker)

MediaDecember 8, 2023

The dark shadow over the NZ TV Awards

Paddy Gower celebrates at the 2023 NZ TV Awards (Photo: Eruera Walker)
Paddy Gower celebrates at the 2023 NZ TV Awards (Photo: Eruera Walker)

How will the new government look at our television? Duncan Greive reflects on this year’s awards ceremony.

This is an excerpt from The Spinoff’s weekly pop culture newsletter Rec Room. Sign up here.

The NZ TV Awards took place in downtown Auckland on Tuesday, which coincided with Te Pāti Māori’s National Māori Action Day. The increasingly fractious relationship between the fresh coalition and many Māori gave a sharp hook to the awards. After the ceremony was opened by Ngāti Whātua, MC Kura Forrester asked the crowd, “All the National voters in the house, are you alright – anyone need a translation?”

That sentiment was echoed in multiple speeches and asides. Rena Owen noted sadly that “people died for Te Tiriti o Waitangi.” Mihi Forbes said, “Today the Crown is promising to replace the treaty principles”. Julian Wilcox joked darkly that he would “try and get as much reo in before the coalition government bans it”. The fact that there was so much reo spoken and so many Māori on stage collecting awards shows how passionate much of this industry is about our indigenous language and culture — it’s hard to imagine any legislation impacting that energy here.

Still, it’s an uncomfortable truth that of the 500 or so people in the room and the 37 awards presented, the bulk owe their existence to some strand of government funding, whether through New Zealand on Air, the Film Commission or Te Māngai Pāho. Even more broadly, the screen production sector relies on favourable tax treatment through screen production rebates.

Former broadcasting minister Willie Jackson was in the room, but he was the only MP there. It felt telling that there were no representatives from the new government in the room — no Melissa Lee, our new media minister, nor Paul Goldsmith, minister for culture. Parliamentary under-secretary Jenny Marcroft was also absent — though told me it was due to the opening of parliament. A valid excuse, but not one that prevented Jackson from attending. Perhaps that’s for the best, as the reception would likely have been frosty.

The tensions within the industry were heavy in the air on Tuesday. Forrester made some pretty cold jokes about the end of The Project, which had apparently been cleared with Jesse Mulligan but still felt raw. That show’s ending feels like it’s the most glaring symptom yet of an industry that is struggling mightily financially. Currently, that impact is felt most acutely at places that screen the shows — the production houses that make them are somewhat shielded through NZ on Air’s role in funding shows. That has been the case for some years now — but as those powerful comments rang out from the stage, I wondered how they might land with the new government and what it might do (or not do) in response.

Parts of this coalition are already suspicious of the media sector, as evidenced by Winston Peters’ extraordinary comments last week. There has been much made of the terrible state of the government’s books by finance minister Nicola Willis. There’s a pre-Christmas mini budget on December 20, and then the big show in May. It’s not hard to imagine that some of the savings might be found by cutting the budgets of those funding agencies — or even the hammer blow of reassessing the screen industry’s screen production rebates. The gaming industry’s incentive win in last May’s budget is already strongly rumoured to be in the gun.

All of which is to say that while the night was fun and fierce in all the right places, it is also true that the comments risk poking a bear. The screen industry can feel hostile not just to any of the parties now in government but, as Forrester’s comment implied, to anyone who voted for them. That’s more than half the country’s voters, who are likely to resent paying taxes to fund culture which appears to disdain them. It’s freedom of speech and truth to power, but it’s also a very challenging time for the industry and a government that is looking for an excuse.

Along with the subtext, there was also an awards show. It was again a banner night for TVNZ, which collected 25 awards, leaving a very subdued set of tables from Warner Brothers Discovery, home of Three, which collected just five. The vibe was typified in TVNZ head of news Phil O’Sullivan’s comment that Newshub is a great opponent, which was well-intentioned but came off a little patronising. At times, TVNZ’s dominance was so overwhelming that it felt like the awards were wholly geared around venerating its magnificence, with the balance of the industry there to make up numbers.

The big winners were The Gone, which took five awards, including best drama, and Princess of Chaos, which took three. Stuff’s Fire and Fury won two major awards. It felt pointed out that Toby Longbottom twice thanked NZ on Air in his speeches but didn’t mention Stuff once. The Stuff Circuit team has yet to release any work this year and was notably absent from the new slate of NZ on Air funding for factual series. Of the smaller players, Whakaata Māori picked up three awards, while RNZ and Sky had one apiece. Perhaps the most impressive showing came from the Coconet, which picked up a pair, including Best Supporting Actress for Inky Pinky Ponky.

Maybe it’s because I’m getting old, but the TV Legend award gets me every time. This year, it went to Oscar Kightley, whose career is so luminously broad it almost doesn’t make sense that a single person could have done it all. From Pacific Underground to Harry to Bro’Town to Skitz (described by Teuila Blakely as “Unapologetically politically incorrect”, which does not describe much contemporary television), his has been a career that has spanned five governments and contained multitudes.

He made an endearingly digressive speech in which he announced a run for mayor, maybe in jest, maybe not, and ended on a final note that felt important. “If we don’t get together to get pissed and talk about it, did our work really happen?” he asked. Given the bad financial energy and strained government relations, just having this night felt precious. Whether there will be many more to come has to be an open question.

RNZ has the full list of winners.

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